Violence continuum

24 Jun, 2014


The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

LIKE many others who may have followed the recently concluded Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, held in London, I was interested to learn why governments representing countries where atrocities are rampant were invited as participants, listening to victims about their horrific experiences of sexual violence.

These same negligent and complicit governments, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Syria in­­clu­ded, the organisers — UK Foreign Secretary William Hague and actor-activist Angelina Jolie — hoped would be ‘forced to act,’ and that they would be moved enough to want to act to stop violence against women and girls.

Governments have not been shamed for their poor rights record or threatened into compliance by the international community because women’s rights are seen as collateral damage. Take the case of Afghan women pre-2001 and their fear of a Taliban resurgence post-2014.

Strangely confident that these governments would have no excuses for inaction after this summit because a new ‘manual’ would provide instruction on how to stop sexual violence, the organisers ensured that they sign up to a protocol on collecting evidence of violent crimes, ensuring prosecutions, supporting victims and aiming to remove the culture of impunity.

Governments have not been shamed for poor rights’ records.

Are powerful governments actually interested in forcing a movement to address sexual violence beyond charting road maps? How can victims of sexual violence and rape, and survivors of acid attacks, ‘honour’ crimes and child marriages in Pakistan expect justice when they are unprotected and mistreated by the state? With no protections such as safe houses, legal assistance, fair trials, police protection, healthcare and empowerment opportunities, the state has failed in its responsibilities.

There’s also the fear of right-wing extremists that keeps high-profile politicians and other activists from lending their support to relentless and visible campaigns the Jolie-Hague way, to change conservative mindsets and anti-women laws. Summits have proved to be talking shops so far; the ground reality is impunity, inaction and fear.

Failure to recognise that violence against women is a crime that must be investigated and prosecuted renders the state culpable because it is apathetic or even complicit in denying justice to victims of sexual violence. When a pregnant woman was bludgeoned to death outside Lahore’s high court by her own relatives for marrying without their consent, the police stood by. It was later revealed that the victim’s husband had strangled his first wife so he could marry her and was forgiven by his adult sons.

A culture of change is not impossible when women are educated about their rights and the law, but it is also driven by educating men, given that most decisions and the management of women’s lives is under their charge.

Bridging gender gaps can enhance economic productivity, improve development outcomes for the next generation, and make institutions and policies more representative. However, it is distressing that regressive recommendations made, for example, by the Council of Islamic Ideology (most of the council’s members are not exactly known to be supporters of women and child rights) are accommodated in parliamentary sessions, especially rulings that child marriages are permissible and absurd decrees sanctioning second marriages requiring no consent from first wives.

When countries like Pakistan, Nige­ria, India, Syria, Sudan, Turkey, Afghanistan and certain others sign declarations, make pledges and draft protocols, they take no note of the words on paper that are meant to translate into action on the ground. Although 187 countries have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Dis­crimination Against Women drafted in 1979, discrimination and violence against women are rampant.

Renewed pledges were made among more than 151 countries prior to the London summit where international civil society movements, activists, politicians, victims of rape and war violence, and governments talked about practical actions to improve investigation and the prosecution of sexual crimes in wartime, ensure better care for victims, and ultimately end violence in war.

As a high-profile campaign backed by governments and fronted by activists, this is an opportunity to carefully monitor pledges made by states known to fall back on their words. Setting timeframes and holding non-compliant governments accountable that have shown no respect for women’s and girls’ rights is what Hague and Jolie must follow through.

With bilateral relationships focused on political machinations, trade and fighting terrorism, the state of the world’s women doesn’t matter. Without pressuring these governments to ensure that human rights are preserved by using strong-arm measures (cutting military and other assistance if pledges are not carried through and pro-women legislation not formulated) and monitoring abuse, the future for women looks decidedly the same.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2014